Advent sermon with Isaiah

Advent Burning, 2020

But now thus says the LORD, / he who created you, O Jacob, / he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; / I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; / and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, / and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. / I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

Because you are precious in my sight, / and honoured, and I love you, / I give people in return for you, / nations in exchange for your life.

Do not fear, for I am with you; / I will bring your offspring from the east, / and from the west I will gather you;

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, / and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; / bring my sons from far away / and my daughters from the end of the earth –

Everyone who is called by my name, / whom I created for my glory, / whom I formed and made.’

Isaiah 43:1-7

Revd Adam Beaumont, online sermon for the Gauzebrook Group, December 2020:

Isaiah was speaking some two and half thousand years ago to a people in their own kind of wilderness. The kingdom of Israel was in decline at the hands of the Assyrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Judah, as Isaiah had already prophesied, was captive in the hands of the Babylonians. God’s people were in a place of trauma, dispossessed of their land, their freedoms had been removed. All that was familiar felt distant, impossible to reach. No doubt God felt distant too, how could he let this be? What had they done to deserve it?

The past nine months have brought their own wilderness haven’t they? Yes stuck at home rather than removed from it, but certainly our freedoms are curtailed, our friends and family are beyond arm’s length. The papers report people feeling trapped and lonely, domestic abuse on the rise, agency taken away from us… this is indeed a strange land, a wilderness, a captivity, a place where hugs don’t exist and where Zoom exhausts us, a place where it is hard to find God because we are so used to meeting him in the intimacy of relationship – in fellowship rather than distance.

How does God respond? God responds through Isaiah with a chiasmus, a literary device in which the words are laid out in order, they get to a point and then are repeated again in reverse order. Why? To make a point, and not just to make it but to emphasise it, to point it out, to shout it out, to slap you round the face with it – ‘this is the thing I want you to know’, and the words leading up to it and repeated afterwards tell you why it’s true:

First, says God ‘I created you’ – not manufactured you like some kind of product, but crafted you with care into the shape you are, the thumbprint of the maker indelibly present on his work of art.

Second, ‘I set you free’ – I called you by name out of your captivity. I did this for your ancestors and I do this for you.

Third, ‘I’m with you’ – it may feel like I’m far away but it’s not true, I don’t keep a comfortable distance, I’m with you in every strange land, in deep rivers and consuming fires, and empty churches, and care homes you can’t visit, and the deep loneliness… I’m there I’m with you.

And fourth, I gave everything up for you – not only Egypt and other places in the past, do you remember? But I’m willing to give up so much more for you too, my son, my everything, for you.

And then it comes to us… after all the layers, after the rehearsing and remembering of the history of God’s people, after bringing to mind our experience of God over the millennia, we get to the point, the pinnacle the heart, the depth, the breadth of it all. All of this, all of this, is because… ||:  You are precious to me, you are honoured, and I love you :|| This is no glib ‘Jesus loves you, this I know, because the Bible tells me so’. No, this is the penultimate-scene-of-the-movie stuff, this is the hero and heroine in tears in each other’s arms after they’ve been through so much together, so much trauma, so much trying to encourage each other along. They’re not home yet, but in the tears, in the sheer depth and intimacy of the love they experience they just know that it’s going to be OK. These are words for a people in captive exile, words for a people in a wilderness of their own: commit them to memory, meditate upon them.

I created you, I freed you, I’m with you, I gave up everything for you, because you are precious, and honoured, and I love you.

Bishop Otter Scholar: closing thoughts

From left: Visual Theology conference at the Bishop’s Palace (2018); Sara Mark at the Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester (2018); Alys Tomlinson at Chichester Cathedral (2019)

This month my position as Bishop Otter Scholar comes to an end, after 3 years in the role. My time has been full of new adventures in word and image, and I have met and engaged a variety of wonderful people from within the Diocese of Chichester and beyond. I’ve just re-read my blog post as I started in September 2017, and remembered the introduction to the role offered by a pilgrim experience of Chichester (as mediated through the Alight app). None of us know which way our paths will take, but I was grateful then, and more so now, for the words of Bishop Martin Warner reflecting that we come to God not by navigation, but by love. I hope that the markers of what I achieved in the role are characterised by love: certainly my own love for the subject of theology and the arts has grown through the gift that is the patronage of the Bishop Otter Trust. It is an almost exceptional thing, this Trust, existing through a historical and shared vision of church leaders to support such intellectual enquiry. I hope it continues to support it, because through it is also raised the picture of a love in action, of creative encounters and thoughtful conversation between artists, academics, congregants, teachers, curators, students and clergy. In duller language, we might call it ‘cross-platform exchange’, in church-speak, ‘community or missional outreach’. I’d like to call it love.

I extend my gratitude in particular to Bishop Martin and Professor Ben Quash, respectively my line manager and mentor in the role. The Bishop’s support and encouragement was real, practical, and always enthusiastic (as was that of his staff at the Bishop’s Palace, Chichester), and with Ben at King’s College London I also benefitted from generous and engaging conversations around praxis and research from an academic community. Long may these conversations continue, in new and wider directions! I close with Bishop Martin’s report:

Sheona Beaumont has been the Bishop Otter Scholar 2017 – 2020, working with the Diocese of Chichester to make its artistic inheritance more public. Her scholarly interest in photography and biblical commentary has been a feature of her work.  She has regularly published articles in a range of media and has explored her subject through visits across the diocese.

In particular, she initiated a challenging discussion with the organisers of the Brighton Photo Biennial, arguing the case for a Christian contribution, and has given support to the restoration project at Berwick Church and its work to engage local communities. Sheona has also continued to work towards the publication of her doctoral research on the theology of photography for Bloomsbury.

Among her achievements has been the Visual Theology conference, held in Chichester in October 2018, and the imminent publication of conference papers under the title, ‘Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: Theology, Aesthetics, and Practice‘ (Routledge, 2021). In Chichester Cathedral the Lent 2019 exhibition by Alys Tomlinson, entitled ‘Ex Voto‘, also broke new ground for cathedrals in the UK. It showed the work of an internationally successful photographer, and her use of black and white photography with landscape, still life, and portraiture connected to three pilgrimage sites in Europe. 

Sheona’s work has widened our awareness of the visual in the Christian tradition. She has challenged us to understand how little we recognise the important contribution of photography to this awareness. In 2019 and 2020, Sheona’s design of the diocesan Christmas card has used that contribution in order to connect with an ancient text, its manuscript transmission, and the work of the angels in our redemption. 

We have benefitted in many ways from Sheon’a capacity to make us look, and think, and imagine, and to see afresh what we thought we knew. We are immensely grateful to her for all she has given us.

In 2021 the Bishop Otter Scholarship will be suspended as we review the impact of the Covid pandemic.  

Seeing women in Oxford’s photography scene

Photographs by Robert Taylor hanging alongside paintings in the Dining Hall of Trinity College, Oxford

Sometimes conversations with photography coalesce in a place: an exhibition here, a commission there, a publication to seal the moment. For me, this has recently happened in Oxford. Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the seminar series for the Bible in Art, Music, and Literature hosted by Trinity College; and last month I visited some of the venues taking part in the Photo Oxford Festival. At the former, I came across the work of photographer Robert Taylor, whose series Feminae Trinitatis was displayed in the Dining Hall at Trinity. This work, and the theme of Photo Oxford this year, centred on women: women as sitters, as photographers, as curators, and as leaders in their field. I’ll try and distill what I think coalesced here, something that goes beyond a passing thematic interest, and puts feminism on the map with its sense of place.

In the online conference for the Festival (24th October), ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Women’, a discussion between Fiona Rogers (Firecracker) and Anna Fox (Fast Forward) gave a sharp snapshot of the under-representation of women in particularly contemporary terms. In BBC4’s recent ‘Britain in Focus’ series, only 8 women were mentioned over 4 programmes, none of whom were living; of the 24 photographers at Tate Modern’s first major photography exhibition Cruel and Tender (2003), 3 were women; in the publication Photography Masterclass: Creative Techniques of 100 Great Photographers (Thames & Hudson, 2016), 8 were from women. It is certainly true that historically women have had less opportunity to achieve professional specialisation, in this as in so many other fields. But the speakers were keen to point out that perpetuation of under-representation continues at the hands of today’s gate-keepers – or at least, at the behest of those more established cultural positions for comment: the BBC, the Tate, the art publishing house. By contrast, the organisations Firecracker and Fast Forward have successfully championed various alternative platforms for women, whether a series of international conferences, a manifesto for change, or widely respected competition and award schemes.

And of course, the Festival itself afforded this opportunity for a raised platform, as ‘Women & Photography: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen’. Photo Oxford is now on its third festival for photography, a multi-site, multi-event celebration held once every three years. Earlier this month, I visited four of the exhibitions: Joanna Vestey’s ‘Circles’ collection and Mariana Castillo Deball’s ‘Between Making and Knowing Something’ were both indoors, while Fran Monks’ ‘Strength and Resilience’ portraits and a few Anna Atkins photograms were to be found outside on street-side boards. Despite the limitations of a pandemic, and in clear contrast to the wholesale move to ‘online editions’ of similarly timed events (most notably Photo London and the Brighton Photo Biennial), Photo Oxford stood by its physical programme. For ‘women and photography’, this seems an importantly tangible demonstration of its commitment to ‘being seen’, across a spectrum of display spaces: from the churchyard of St Giles’ Church (home to The Gatehouse charity for the homeless in Oxford, where Monks’ portraits were taken and displayed) and the wall of the Covered Market, to Modern Art Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum. The spectacle of photography in these spaces at some level achieves its sought-for democratisation.

For me, this was epitomised by Taylor’s work in Trinity’s Dining Hall. Oxford is a place with unavoidable connotations of privilege, intellectual and financial, of which the stately Colleges and their grounds are an enduring, material symbol. For years, the educational system here excluded women as students. In 2017, Taylor was commissioned to take portraits of women across all sections of the College, nominally to celebrate ‘diversity and inclusivity’, and materially resulting in a dramatically displaced narrative of commendation. For the original display in the Hall, the oil paintings of various male founders and benefactors were removed to the balcony, while the female alumnae and staff took the main walls. Later in 2019, the current display had re-engaged the men, with an arrangement designed to be conversational and corrective in tone: women assume places they have previously not been permitted to, at the High Table, or above the older portraits (above left: Roma Tearne, a recent Fine Art graduate is displayed above Bernard Adams, Bishop of Limerick by an unknown seventeenth-century artist). I particularly like the group portrait (above right, shown at the High Table end of the Hall), which features women who serve and have traditionally served other more humble positions in the College, not least the kitchen staff. The Foundress of Trinity College, Lady Elizabeth Pope (c.1515-1593) is seen in the painting behind them, and so in representational and physical space the orchestration of hierarchical exclusion collapses.

The nub here is the and. Feminist viewpoints in our representational spaces is all well and good: the media world is changing, contributors are seeing gaps in the exhibition line-ups and the published/broadcast surveys, and are pointing them out. But I want to see them in and across physical spaces too, where perhaps the idea of politicised viewpoint as a matter of geography hasn’t been fully considered. From the small details of where an image sits on what kind of wall, to the bigger associations of place with different kinds of authority or voice or historical traffic. Maybe we could call this photography’s Oxford scene, instead of Oxford’s photography scene. Maybe the local can be sutured more reflexively to the discourse.

The End of Lockdown

A middle way in Badock’s Wood, Corsham

(For those with children going back to school after 6 months at home)

Maybe it’s not a time for writing. Maybe the coalescing of junctioned thoughts gives too much structure to the wisps of ideas. They haven’t been written for so long anyway. The traipsing catalogue of lockdown lent a plan of Things To Get Done around the kids. A slowly circling pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, where each half-blinded attempt lends to ridicule and futility their hope. The beautifully crafted timetable for home-schooling lasted a week. The game-playing on tablets assumed an inverse proportion. Chores became battlegrounds around a finite number of marbles. Material stuff continually moved around the house. The dog got stressed. You want to know what lockdown was like? PARENTS COULDN’T NAIL ANYTHING. The short-circuit in all and every circumstance to a child’s immediate desire: their hunger, their tiredness, the shouting each other up and down, their right to self, their pure entitlement. The hijacking thereby of any prolonged moment of concentration, reflection, consideration – no chance to stare at the world because the world is beyond the shores of your island and doesn’t hear your shouting. The relationship bridge to your partner has weathered some storms, but this time, the stasis necessary for the kids’ laws of motion has translated into brittleness. Being in the business of denied thought, denied conversation, denied chancing your arm, and everything stifles and stalls. Our job has been silence, silenced to each other because you can’t pay attention to the kids if you’re talking.

Maybe it is a time for writing. Maybe the considered attempt to join up memories fills out the picture of lives lived. The photos were taken throughout anyway. The traipsing catalogue of lockdown lent a plan of Things to Enjoy Doing with the kids. A whirlwind cacophony of race-you-to-the-moon-and-back, where the abandon of play lends to ridicule and futility their hope. The timetable included Joe Wicks giving us Fancy Dress Friday for carpet-room workouts. The sunshine assumed a glorious proportion of fields, treehouses, rivers, cow parsley, frogs, Easter gardens and radishes. Chores became shared. Material stuff didn’t matter and we spent less. The dog got loved. You want to know what lockdown was like? PARENTS COULD EXPERIENCE EVERYTHING. The short-circuit in all and every circumstance to a child’s perspective of now: their excitement, their openness, their commitment, their pure youth. The liberation thereby into receiving everything as a gift rather than an interruption – a chance to stare at the immediate, colourful presence of the world right in front of you. The relationship bridge to your partner has weathered some storms, and this time, the stasis necessary for the kids’ laws of motion has translated into deeper equality. Being in the business of shared responsibility, shared loves, shared creativity, and everything expands and inspires. Our job has been steadiness, steadiness to each other because you can’t pay attention to the kids if you’re trying to get one up on your life.

Patina and palimpsest: the legacy of Lacock

The Talbot family gravestones, Lacock, 2020

The time has come for my family to leave Lacock, having arrived in here in 2015. Back then, I welcomed the place for the resonances of its photographic heritage and my own geographical journey: it seemed to promise a moment of consolidation, of leaving lands connected to my upbringing and education, and finding home in something more intellectually rooted.

Five years later, and there is so much to be thankful for that has happened here. I could draw up a list of significant moments, a project report for a life lived across work, church, and my children’s early primary years. It might put some markers in the sand, in the way we tend to with autobiographical reflection. But here I want to think about it more conceptually, in the frame of considering a photograph, above, of the Talbot gravestones in Lacock’s cemetery. I walked past them every day doing the school run, and they often appeared to me like sentries: two upright, uniform guards, firmly poised amongst the tilting and wavering forms of nearby headstones. Their prominence grew in my mind’s eye when the two cedar trees marking the entrance to the cemetery were cut down, and they became the surrogate gate-keepers on a more prosaic, but human, level.

They’re ornamentally unremarkable, no decoration to speak of, no elaborate detail in the carving, not even any lyrical prose to mark this most influential family of the area. They don’t bear the marks of attention from the living either, becoming slowly more and more weathered, claimed by lichen and red valerian pushing up through the gravel. Recently a resident complained that they ought to be looked after, and tended to, by the National Trust, who own most of the land that used to belong to the Talbots. The Trust declined. The photographs in this local news article show the resident in one image arms folded, next to the gravestones, and in another leaning across to place a territorial hand above Talbot’s name. I wondered if my photograph should have me too like that, testifying to my purpose being there, claiming the connection as an authoritative steward of photography’s histories. Or whether I should adopt something altogether more poetic, something like John Dugdale’s self-portrait cyanotype, where he is seated below Talbot’s name in a frontispiece for his book ‘Life’s Evening Hour’ (2000).

Instead, my image has just the stones, assuming a formal portrait pose of their own. I like the lining up of linear histories, a testament to time that comes from verbal identification first – not personal association, not physical connection, but something embedded in language. It is language that assumes the patina, language whose greying clusters and diversions for rainfall draw the patterning of nature’s palimpsest. Everything happens around language, around Talbot’s world-changing invention AS language – even if I locate the scene, its shapes and frame in a pictorial mode (of that, there, then), I also draw it into association and conversation (a black-and-white lurch into semantics). Lacock for me was all about this, all about a shifting, layering landscape of photography. I think I had hopes that as a ‘promised land’ it would offer some concrete direction or place from which to orient myself anew – when actually it fostered something else, something less static, something still to be written, a habit of creating slowly, askew, and in the dark. Despite the spectacular lenses of film crews, Harry Potter and National Trust promotion, Lacock is a small place, and things remain small there, tended or untended. But I’d like to think that for me, they will also flow as milk and honey.